The Great Fire

The Great Fire

by Shirley Hazzard
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The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

More than twenty years after the classic The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard returns to fiction with a novel that in the words of Ann Patchett "is brilliant and dazzling..."

The Great Fire is an extraordinary love story set in the immediate aftermath of the great conflagration of the Second World War. In war-torn Asia and stricken Europe, men and women, still young but veterans of harsh experience, must reinvent their lives and expectations, and learn, from their past, to dream again. Some will fulfill their destinies, others will falter. At the center of the story, a brave and brilliant soldier finds that survival and worldly achievement are not enough. His counterpart, a young girl living in occupied Japan and tending her dying brother, falls in love, and in the process discovers herself.

In the looming shadow of world enmities resumed, and of Asia's coming centrality in world affairs, a man and a woman seek to recover self-reliance, balance, and tenderness, struggling to reclaim their humanity. The Great Fire is a story of love in the aftermath of war by "purely and simply, one of the greatest writers working in English today." (Michael Cunningham)

The Great Fire is the winner of the 2003 National Book Award for Fiction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312423582
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 07/01/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 254,104
Product dimensions: 5.55(w) x 8.14(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

Shirley Hazzard (1931-2016) is the author, most recently, of Greene on Capri, a memoir of Graham Greene, and several works of fiction, including The Evening of the Holiday, The Bay of Noon, and The Transit of Venus, winner of the 1981 National Book Critics Circle Award. She lived in New York City and Capri.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

January 30, 1931

Place of Birth:

Sydney, Australia


Educated at Queenwood College, Sydney, Australia

Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. Copyright © 2003 by Shirley Hazzard. To be published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone, announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain.

Leith sat by a window, his body submissively chugging as they got under way. He would presently see that rain continued to fall on the charred suburbs of Tokyo, raising, even within the train, a spectral odour of cinders. Meanwhile, he was examining a photograph of his father. Aldred Leith was holding a book in his right hand—not reading, but looking at a likeness of his father on the back cover.

It was one of those pictures, the author at his desk. In an enactment of momentary interruption, the man was half-turned to the camera, left elbow on blotter, right hand splayed over knee. Features fine and lined, light eyes, one eyelid drooping. A taut mouth. Forehead full, full crop of longish white hair. The torso broad but spare; the clothes unaffected, old and good. As a boy, Leith had wondered how his father could always have good clothes so seldom renewed—a seeming impossibility, like having a perpetual two days' growth of beard.

The expression, not calm but contained, was unrevealing. Siding with the man, the furniture supplied few clues: a secretary of dark wood was fitted in its top section with pigeonholes and small closed drawers. This desk had been so much part of the climate of family life, indivisible from his father's moods—and even appearing, to the child, to generate them—that the son had never until now inspected it with adult eyes. For that measure of detachment, a global conflict had been required, a wartime absence, a voyage across the world, a long walk through Asia; a wet morning and strange train.

There was no telephone on the desk, no clock or calendar. A bowl of blown roses, implausibly prominent, had perhaps been borrowed, by the photographer, from another room. On the blotter, two handwritten pages were shielded by the tweedy sleeve. Pens and pencils fanned from a holder alongside new books whose titles, just legible, were those of Oliver Leith's novels in postwar translations. There were bills on a spike, a glass dish of chips, a paperweight in onyx. No imaginable colours, other than those of the foisted flowers; no object that invited, by its form or material, the pressure of a hand. No photograph. Nothing to suggest familiarity or attachment.

The adult son thought the picture loveless. The father who had famously written about love—love of self, of places, of women and men—was renowned for a private detachment. His life, and that of his wife, his child, was a tale of dislocation: there were novels of love from Manchuria to Madagascar. The book newly to hand, outcome of a grim postwar winter in Greece, could be no exception. And was called Parthenon Freeze.

If the man had stood up and walked from the picture, the strong torso would have been seen to dwindle into the stockiness of shortish legs. The son's greater height, not immoderate, came through his mother; his dark eyes also.

All this time, Leith's body had been gathering speed. Putting the book aside, he interested himself in the world at the window: wet town giving way to fields, fields soggily surrendering to landscape. The whole truncated from time to time by an abrupt tunnel or the lash of an incoming train. Body went on ahead; thought hung back. The body could give a good account of itself—so many cities, villages, countries; so many encounters, such privation and exertion should, in anyone's eyes, constitute achievement. Leith's father had himself flourished the trick of mobility, fretting himself into receptivity and fresh impression. The son was inclined to recall the platform farewells.

He had the shabby little compartment to himself. It was locked, and he had been given a key. It was clean, and the window had been washed. Other sections of the train were crammed with famished, thread bare Japanese. But the victors travelled at their ease, inviolable in their alien uniforms. Ahead and behind, the vanquished overflowed hard benches and soiled corridors: men, women, infants, in the miasma of endurance. In the steam of humanity and the stench from an appalling latrine. Deploring, Aldred Leith was nevertheless grateful for solitude, and spread his belongings on the opposite seat. Having looked awhile at Asia from his window, he brought out a different, heavier book from his canvas bag.

In that spring of 1947, Leith was thirty-two years old. He did not consider himself young. Like others of his generation, had perhaps never quite done so, being born into knowledge of the Great War. In the thoughtful child, as in the imaginative and travelled schoolboy, the desire had been for growth: to be up and away. From the university where he did well and made friends, he had strolled forth distinctive. Then came the forced march of resumed war. After that, there was no doubling back to recover one's youth or take up the slack. In the wake of so much death, the necessity to assemble life became both urgent and oppressive.

Where traceable, his paternal ancestors had been, while solidly professional, enlivened by oddity. His grandfather, derided by relatives as an impecunious dilettante, had spiked all guns by inventing, at an advanced age, a simple mechanical process that made his fortune. Aldred's father, starting out as a geologist whose youthful surveys in high places—Bhutan, the Caucasus—produced, first, lucid articles, had soon followed these with lucid harsh short stories. The subsequent novels, astringently romantic, brought him autonomy and fame. Renouncing geology, he had kept a finger, even so, on the pulse of that first profession, introducing it with authority here and there in his varied narratives: the Jurassic rocks of East Greenland, the lavatic strata of far islands; these played their parts in the plot. In Oliver Leith's house in Norfolk there hung a painting of the youthful geologist prowling the moraines on his shortish legs. A picture consequential yet inept, like a portrait by Benjamin Robert Haydon.

Leith's mother, by birth a Londoner, was of Scots descent. There were red-cheeked relatives, well connected. A fine tall stone house, freezing away near Inverness, had been a place of cousinly convergence in summers before the Second World War. Aldred had not been an only child: a younger sister had died in childhood from diphtheria. It was then that his mother had begun to accompany, or follow, her husband on his journeys, taking their son with her.

And on the move ever since, the son thought, looking from his window at the stricken coasts of Japan. Two years ago, as war was ending, he had intended to create for himself a fixed point, some centre from which departures might be made—the decision seeming, at the time, entirely his to make. Instead, at an immense distance from anything resembling home, he wondered with unconcern what circumstance would next transform the story.

From a habit of self-reliance, he was used to his own moods and did not mind an occasional touch of fatalism. He had, himself, some fame, quite unlike his father's and quite unsought.

It was near evening when he arrived. The train was very late, but an Australian soldier sent to meet him was waiting on the improvised platform: "Major Leith?"

"You had a long wait."

"That's all right." They went down ill-lit wooden stairs. A jeep was parked on gravel. "I had a book."

They swung the kit aboard, and climbed in. On an unrepaired road, where pedestrians wheeled bicycles in the dusk, they skirted large craters and dipped prudently into small ones. They were breathing dust and, through it, smells of the sea.

Leith asked, "What were you reading?"

The soldier groped with free hand to the floor. "My girl sent it."

The same photograph: Oliver Leith at his desk. On the front cover, the white tide, cobalt sky, and snowbound Acropolis.

Leith brought out his own copy from a trenchcoat pocket.

"I'll be damned."

They laughed, coming alive out of khaki drab. The driver was possibly twenty: staunch body, plain pleasant face. Grey eyes, wide apart, wide awake. "You related?"

"My father."

"I'm damned."

They were near the waterfront now, following the bed of some derelict subsidiary railway. The joltings might have smashed a rib cage. You could just see an arc of coastal shapes, far out from ruined docks: hills with rare lights and a black calligraphy of trees fringing the silhouettes of steep islands. The foreground reality, a wartime shambles of a harbour with its capsized shipping, was visible enough, and could, in that year, have been almost anywhere on earth.

The driver was peering along the track. "Write yourself?"

"Not in that way."

"Never too late."

The boy plainly considered his passenger past the stage of revelations. A dozen years apart in age, they were conclusively divided by war. The young soldier, called to arms as guns fell silent, was at peace with this superior—civil and comradely, scarcely saluting or saying Sir, formalities no longer justified. Intuitively, too, they shared the unease of conquerors: the unseemliness of finding themselves few miles from Hiroshima.

"How do you manage here?" The man had a deep, low voice. If one had to put a colour to it, it would have been dark blue; or what people in costly shops call burgundy.

Reading Group Guide

1. If The Great Fire is a historical novel—"historical"
in setting as well as in its preoccupation with weight of political and personal history—how does the novel feel particularly contemporary?
What themes present in the book exist today,
in our world?
2. The novel is, as well, a veiled critique on
Imperialism, on the Western world's presence in foreign lands. In what way does each character reflect a different reaction to the East? What sorts of roles do they (Aldred, Peter, Oliver, the
Driscolls, Calder, Talbot) play in its changing politics?
3. In what ways is love expressed in the novel? Do these characters put themselves at risk for such expression, and furthermore, what must they stand up against to love others?
4. The idea of destiny–fate–comes up again and again in this world. The word "destiny" itself is mentioned more than four times throughout the novel. If both love and war are then meant to be, if these people's damages lead them to new places, what do these characters' individual lives say about humanity as a whole? Does the novel leave you with hope or worry?
5. More specifically, what is the fate of women in
The Great Fire? Think of the discussion on
Western weddings in Hong Kong, on page 159.
Of Aldred and Peter's impressions and experiences

with women. Of Helen's plight.
6. Discuss the paragraph on page 111, beginning with "These were their days…"
7. What role do the mailed letters play in the book? Are they "the sad silly evidence of things," as Aldred says to Helen, or are they more? How does Hazzard use the epistolary form to fuel the narrative?
8. Why, towards the novel's close, does Aldred remember the stacking of his home's firewood
(page 223) with such immaculate detail?
9. Infirmity is everywhere throughout The Great
Fire—from Benedict Driscoll's degeneration to
Aldred's wounds to Peter's fate to Dick Laister's father's amputation. What deeper, quieter infirmities exist in the book? What are your impressions about the characters' reaction to their wounds?
10. What do you believe Benedict said when he yelled at the Japanese servant who would

subsequently kill himself?

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Great Fire 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Obviously this is a book written by a master of the english language. She values words and phrasing (so do I), but does not do well with dialogue, character development, story development, and pace. The book was about nothing, went nowhere, but sounded real pretty. :) I could not get a clear visual of place or people. Another reviewer mentioned each character had the same voice. I kept telling myself this over and over again as well!! I'm the type who will press on even if I don't like a book, so I do feel violated. :) The words were eloquent, the narrative poetic, but that's not why you write fiction novels. The author should find another genre such as short prose or poetry.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There is a reason that some previous reviewers didn't like this book. If you are mostly interested in plot instead of prose, don't read this (for example, you like Dan Brown). Those books have their value, too, I've read them also, but they have a totally different objective than this book and really shouldn't be compared. In other words, if you are reading this book waiting for something to 'happen,' you should either put it down right away, or, even better, realize that what is happening is the writing on the page and the magic of our language. To be quite frank, the majority of people either don't like books like this or don't have the patience for them, but in this book Hazzard isn't just aiming for the masses.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was my book club selection, otherwise I would have ended my misery much sooner by not finishing this book. Not only were the characters flat, they all had the same voice. Ms. Hazzard's style is over written, and overly dramatic. To me it lacks both poetry and substance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Impressive lexicon and stylistically original, but I found both plot and characters flat. Nothing happened! If this hadn't been a book club read, I would have abandoned it after the first hundred pages.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
SAHARATEA More than 1 year ago
The further I distance myself from this novel the more I dislike it. I read it fairly eagerly, as the story was intriguing and the setting, post WWII Asia, was fascinating. I initially reviewed it favorably, but whenever I think back, I realize how unrealistic it was. In summary, a British war hero, Aldred Leith, is assigned to investigate the aftereffects of Hiroshima, and throughout this story he completes his research, connects with some old friends in Japan, and begins an emotional 'affair' with a teenage girl. But really, it is more of the story of the world's most boring man. Most of this book is him recounting his various travels, which would in actuality be dreadful and tedious. Everyone he meets tends to be a shade or two beneath him somehow, so he's always giving advice or assistance in a not quite selfless way. All other characters are minor, and while Hazzard spends very little time physically describing him, she actually "shows" him well by his actions and speech. But he's too good. His behavior is exemplary. His speech refined. Everything about him reeks perfection. In other words, he's a bore. I was rooting for him to do something bad, or ill advised, or even be tardy to an event, just to see him act less elegant or graceful. Perhaps a spot on his tie? He's not the kind of guy to pull weeds, but he'd gladly give the gardener a generous sum to do it for him, along with a wrapped book of Chinese verse to take home and treasure. Obnoxious. The other thing that annoyed me was that the author foreshadowed many events that fizzled out. I realize that added an element of suspense, but some of it was almost like it was forgotten or she ran out of time. The long anticipated confrontation with the parents of his intended never happened, and his deep friendship with Peter (a lifelong friend) fizzled when Peter became sick and attempted suicide (but Aldred did send Peter a get-well telegram). It concludes as you'd expect (I won't spoil it for you).
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Read this book. It is exquisite. If you love language and apprecite a perfect sentence, you must not miss this experience. The story's emotional and social subtleties are fascinating, the characters well-drawn and very human. The author makes hilarious and very accurate observations of human behaviour. I am nearly finished with my first reading of this book, and I am loathe to reach the end. I will look forward to rereading this novel in a year or so. Knowing the story's resolution will only enrich the rereading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book, but felt it was somewhat unconnected and missing something. I kept waiting for something to happen, and nothing really did. I felt that there was so much more she could have done with these characters, yet they were flat and it was hard to feel for them. I did finish it, and gave it to a friend, hoping she could maybe tell me if I missed something. It was that kind of book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I kept waiting for something to HAPPEN in this book. The author shows us how beautifully she can write without giving us a story to attach it to. I gave up after 100 pages. Don't necessarily trust 'prize winners' for good reading. For lyrical writing AND a good story, try 'Property' by Valerie Martin, 'Some Things That Stay' Sarah Willis, 'The Cape Anne' Faith Sullivan 'Places to look for a mother' Nicole Stansbury
Guest More than 1 year ago
If, like me, you don't have time to read as much as you would like and look to the National Book Award winner as an indicator for what might make a worthwhile investment of your attention, then my advice is to skip this pretentious, sleep-inducing novel in favor of other NBA finalists, such as the Pulitzer-winning 'The Known World' and my favorite of the bunch, 'Drop City,' as well as the non-fiction nominee, 'Devil in the White City.'
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you like lots of description - - so that you almost feel like you're there, this is the book for you. If you are interested in any action -- or even a plot, pass on this one. There are many words spent on character development, but we are still left not really knowing them. Keep a dictionary handy, and don't require proper sentence structure. It's not important to this author. I obviously didn't like this book, but I will say it may very well have captured the desolate zeitgeist of another time and another place when war ruled our world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
We find ourselves transported to 1947 East Asia, soon after WWII. Ms. Hazzard paints a picture of a world that lay in ruins through her flowing prose and with great descriptive clarity. At the heart of the story is Englishman Aldred Leith who has come to chart the physical damage incurred from the war but finds not only this but great psychological damage to the pride of the Japanese people. In time he falls in love with a young girl who is coming of age at a time when she is caring for her physically hadicapped brother. We meet Aldred's Australian friend Peter Exley who is investigating Japanese war crimes in Hong Kong. Exley is facing a life altering decision about what to do with his life now that the war has ended. I was emotionally drawn into this novel and couldn't put it down. Many of the feelings of sadness and soulful turmoil by rescuers can be applied to our world's current situation, and in particular to the US involvement in Iraq. I would highly recommend this book!
TMRosenthal More than 1 year ago
On p. 48 of the hardback edition, the main character of The Great Fire, a British soldier, has a conversation with an Australian and an American. All three soldiers wonder whether there was any strategic purpose why the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. The novel takes place in 1947 and these veterans of the war wonder whether there was any strategic purpose to the nuclear bombings. This conversation is so unrealistic, so preposterous and so unbelievable that it betrays such a profound lack of understanding of the war that it undermines the credibility of the entire novel. The atomic bombs were dropped because Japan would not surrender. Even though its military was defeated, Japan would not surrender. Even after the first bomb was dropped, Japan would not surrender. That's the strategic purpose why the bombs were dropped and by 1947 it was clearly understood by all military forces - and by many civilians around the world - that there was no other way to get the fanatical Japanese military to accept defeat. Further in the conversation, the three soldiers surmise that "neither side was interested in sparing anyone, including themselves" by the time the bombs were dropped. Again, this demonstrates Hazzard's profound ignorance of her subject. It was a well-established and well-known fact - even before the bombs were dropped in early August 1945 -- that Japanese soldiers were either committing suicide or refusing to surrender. (The last Japanese solider finally surrendered in 1971.) American troops throughout the Pacific were pleading with Japenese soldiers to surrender, but they refused, so they were forced to burn them out of their hiding places. But the main reasons the bombs were dropped was that the American invasion of the home islands would have caused an estimated 1 million U.S. casualties - and probably led to the deaths and suicides of many millions of Japanese citizens. The bombs were dropped to force the Japanese to accept defeat - and to spare the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions upon millions of Japanese civilians who were being ordered by their insane government to kill themselves instead of surrendering. This is a government that has yet to apologize for the atrocities its soldiers committed - the rape of Nanking, the Comfort Women, the torture of POWs, the Bataan death march, etc. etc. etc. Japanese Prime Ministers are still visiting the cemetary where war criminals are buried. If Ms. Hazzard's characters do not even understand some very basic facts about the war, then they are too stupid to care about. I suspect it is either the author's own ignorance or her blinding liberal bias at work that chooses to criticize America for the necessary evil of using the atomic bombs. Her ignorance renders this book silly. A much better book on the subject is JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun.